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Pats and monsters: a GAA player might just step into the world of American football

Ciarán Murphy: Three Gaelic footballers have a very long shot at a NFL kicking job. Don’t bet against them making it

Anyone could have sat down and watched footage of what happened in the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis late last Sunday night, our time. Rory Beggan of Monaghan, Wicklow’s Mark Jackson and Charlie Smyth of Down, along with seven of the best kickers in college American football, lined up in front of a phalanx of NFL coaches and were asked to hit field goals from a variety of distances.

This was at an event called the Combine, which is basically a chance for young hopefuls, the vast majority of whom are the brightest stars in US college American football to showcase their wares for all 32 NFL teams, who have representatives watching every second of footage. This is all shown live, covered in limitless depth and breathless excitement on the NFL Network.

What was more interesting to me was what Beggan told us on the Second Captains podcast this week about the interview process. He met with all 32 NFL teams before the on-pitch stuff happened at all – “basically like speed-dating”, as he described it. And whereas the kickers who had come up through the American college system had to answer a barrage of questions about their character, personality and their ability to deal with pressure, the Irish lads were instead being asked to explain just what exactly Gaelic football was.

There are 16,000 high-school football teams in America, and every one of them has a kicker. College football is a phenomenon in American sports. Every kicker in the NFL will have gone through both of those experiences.


Daniel Whelan became the first Irishman in 38 years to play in the NFL last September, when he was the Green Bay Packers’ starting punter. Whelan’s achievement is exceptional, not lessened at all by the fact that he moved from Enniskerry to California when he was 13. He was a late adaptor, but he still played high school and college football.

Rory Beggan is 31. One Monaghan man of my acquaintance told me last week that it would be more in Beggan’s line now to get the hell back to Ireland in time for the relegation four-pointer against Tyrone in Omagh on Sunday week, given (as far as my friend knew) Beggan wouldn’t know Patrick Mahomes if Mahomes came up to him wearing a ‘Mahomes 15′ Kansas City Chiefs jersey, said “hello, I’m three-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes” and booted him up the arse. To be fair, Beggan seemed far more clued in than that this week.

But before last Sunday, it all really did seem like a pipe-dream. Now? For all that we’ve followed the story over the last three or four months, the idea that a GAA player might one day become an NFL kicker is only now starting to crystallise in people’s minds. This ... might actually happen?

Beggan and company were supposed to come back to Ireland last Tuesday. After Sunday night, they were instead urged to stay in America and wait. Wait for what, we (and they) are not entirely sure. But as you read this, they are in Florida, and at some unspecified date in the next few weeks, a phone call will be made and the life of one of Ireland’s most recognisable Gaelic footballers could be changed forever.

Beggan hasn’t missed a game for Monaghan in a decade. He is an All Star, an exceptional free-taker and a pioneer of the new style of goalkeeping, which often takes him far from his original posting between the sticks.

It seems absurd that Beggan would be sitting down with the Las Vegas Raiders telling them about the last-second free he hit for Scotstown against Kilcoo in the Ulster senior club semi-final last November, but – that’s exactly what he was doing. It might be daft, but it is also absolutely relevant. His ability under that kind of pressure is exactly what they’re looking for.

For many kickers their bread and butter is hitting Pats – points after touchdown, or the American football version of a conversion in rugby. Unlike in rugby, these are always from directly in front of the post, and always from 33 yards out. These are the puddings – the aim for every kicker is to go an entire season without missing one of those.

After that, field goals can be hit from anywhere in the field. Any kick over 50 yards is seen as a challenge, and anything the far side of 60 is seen as absolutely monstrous. But this is the kicker’s only job. Any GAA player has a chance to revive his reputation in open play if he misses a couple of kicks. Miss a couple of Pats in an important game, and not only will you not get a chance to redeem yourself, you might be looking for a new job on Monday morning. It is as cut-throat as that.

Even experienced kickers don’t often get the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of American sports fans, and Beggan and his Irish compatriots would be well advised to remember that their background won’t cut any ice if they manage to take this miraculous final step and actually take a kick in the NFL. Something tells me the competitor in Beggan wouldn’t have it any other way ... and after the last week, we might soon find out.